The Dress Code Struggle
A common struggle for day schools is adherence to a dress code or uniform. These are some of the challenges as I see them:
*We often use vague terms in our school handbooks to explain the logic using terms like “modesty” or “orthodox standards.”
*Generally, the issues of non-compliance connected to dress in school affects the female population more than the males and often triggers those students to feel religiously condemned.
*Teachers tend to take two different paths to deal with this issue. Some teachers and administrators, fearing an adversarial relationship with their students (or a hostile relationship with the parents), tend to turn a blind eye to consistent infractions while others become so frustrated with the seemingly never-ending violations, that they become angry with their students which in turn affects the student-teacher relationship.
While this topic is not a new one in our schools, it has been on my mind lately. Recently, Lilly Gelman, a day school graduate (and full disclosure- my daughter) wrote a piece for the Forward titled “It’s Time Orthodox Jews Stop Equating Modesty with Self Respect. https://forward.com/author/lilly-gelman/
She writes how the lines between halachik infraction in dress and character shaming are blurred together so that students (in her case specifically females) hear a message that choosing to dress outside the uniform or dress code of their school or institutions invites an attack on their personal integrity. It is painful to read about her negative experiences as a high school student. While she is just one person with one experience, her voice speaks for many who feel the same way.
In my own classroom, I choose to enforce the school dress code without stressing any link to halacha. Lettering on your sweatshirt or a shirt without a collar are of the same level of violation as a mini skirt or coming to class without a kippah. There is no punishment for violation, but there is a quarterly incentive for compliance (5 points on a test or an exemption from a quiz).
I wonder if we should give thought to doing away with the halachik dress code in our schools. Perhaps this is a battle that we don’t want to fight with our students during these years. Maybe the focus should be on their connection to Torah, to Judaism and helping them navigate the tough years of adolescence so they leave high school as mindful, thoughtful Jews. As educators, we have a limited amount of time with our students. We pick and choose in our curriculum knowing that we cannot teach them everything, and we hope that we instill in them a thirst to learn more when they leave high school. Maybe along those lines, we should choose to overlook outward dress for now and focus on their “insides”- their growth as caring, committed young adults. While I know this suggestion would need to be “unpacked” by each school as they see fit, I believe it is one to seriously consider as we move forward in Jewish education.